Rhode Island Unlikely To Provide Universal School Meals For Public School Kids

Despite overwhelming majority of Senate support, the Rhode Island House will likely not approve budget for free lunch and breakfast

Meghan Gallagher/The 74

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Updated June 9

Despite overwhelming support from the Rhode Island Senate, free lunch and breakfast for all public school children will likely not be available, according to state legislators.

The Rhode Island Senate voted 31 to 4 on May 16 in favor of funding school meals the federal government doesn’t already cover — with opposition coming from Senate Republicans.

Rhode Island Democratic senator Jonathan Acosta said momentum to offer the meals will likely end once the bill is presented to the House of Representatives.

“Nobody wants to be the asshole to say ‘no we’re not going to feed kids at school’ so my guess would be that the House will protect itself by avoiding a public vote,” Acosta told The 74.

LeeAnn Sennick, communications director for the Rhode Island Senate minority office, declined The 74’s request for comment on Acosta’s remarks.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, of the state’s 137,452 public school students, more than 70,000 receive a free or reduced-price lunch; and around 29,000 receive a free or reduced-price breakfast.

During the pandemic, the federal government funded free school meal programs for children throughout the country. The program expired at the start of the 2022-23 school year, leaving state governments to decide whether to pick up the cost. 

Rhode Island House of Representatives communications director Larry Berman told The 74 in an emailed statement “there is no money in the budget that just passed the House Finance Committee in regards to free lunch and breakfast” for all public school children.

The House of Representatives began to vote on the state budget Friday and will adjourn on June 30th.

Acosta said the House of Representatives has other spending priorities, such as funding housing. 

According to the Center for American Progress, California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico have funded universal school meals after federal funds ran out.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Nevada have passed temporary legislation in the absence of continued federal investment.

“Hunger is one of the very first things that needs to be addressed. It’s one of the biggest barriers to learning and one that’s honestly pretty easy to solve,” Allie Pearce, a K-12 education policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, told The 74.

Under federal guidelines set for the 2023-24 academic year, a student from a household of three is eligible for free lunch if they made $32,318 or less in annual income and for reduced-price lunch if they made $45,991 or less. A student from a household of six is eligible for free meals at $52,364 or less in annual income.

“Those are just students that we know have filled out applications or that have been directly certified,” Pearce said. “There are probably so many more students that have not been able to fill out those applications or their families are in difficult or uncertain financial situations and may not qualify.”

The bill, sponsored by Acosta, would require Rhode Island public schools to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students instead of requiring them to only provide meals for those covered by the federal government.

“With the pandemic we saw a rise in economic and food insecurity across our state,” Acosta said. “We’ve started moving back to this world where we saw the issue of lunch shaming…so in light of that we picked up where some of these folks left off and introduced this legislation.”

Pearce noted that deprioritizing free school meals will do a disservice to all Rhode Island public school students, especially those who receive reduced-price meals.

“Those students will continue to have to pay a lesser amount but one that adds up for sure,” Peace said. “It also doesn’t work to address the stigma a lot of students go through when it comes to the meal debt that they may accrue.”

Rhode Island Republican senator Jessica de la Cruz has argued this bill is unnecessary because children from low-income families already receive free school meals.

“What you are doing is financing free lunches for the affluent,” Cruz told The Providence Journal. “I would be in favor of widening the eligibility, but I cannot support the lunches of the affluent.” 

Rhode Island Republican senator Gordon Rogers agreed with Cruz.

“I’m not against feeding children and kids that need it in school,” Rogers told The Providence Journal. “This will cost the state of Rhode Island [up to] $40 million, not just one time, but continuing, escalating forward.”

In the meantime, Acosta is hopeful conversations around free school meals will be revived in the coming year.

“The people in our state are our most valuable asset and the more that we develop them the better the returns are going to be for all of us,” Acosta said.

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